Ironically, there is no collective noun for writers. According to Google, James Lipton has suggested “a worship of writers.” Although Lipton is an expert on collective nouns (he’s written a book about it after all) the term hasn’t caught on. The very people who both enshrine common usage of words and mint new words where language provides none have for centuries neglected to establish a collective noun for their own work. Perhaps this is because writing is such solitary work. At the Iceland Writers Retreat, I think every one of the authors leading workshops I attended mentioned this aspect of writing. It popped up again and again in hallway conversations as we told each other how wonderful it was to finally meet someone else who feels strongly about semicolons/takes notes at parties/has ever heard of that author.
During a tour of Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness’ house, we were privileged to hear Sjón read from The Blue Fox. Sjón’s slim novels are as airy as lace and opaque as obsidian, and they grieve me intensely because I am way out of my depth when I read them. Sjón prefaced his reading with the comment that sitting in Laxness’ living room was inspiring because his furniture showed that Iceland’s literary giant “was still in the shape and size of a human being – so we have hope as well.” If Sjón can stand with shaking hands in front of an audience and consider himself just one of the rest of us aspiring writers then it’s entirely possible that no writer ever felt sufficiently confident to name a collective to which they only marginally belonged.
At a reception early in the retreat, I stood to the side with a couple of my new friends, too shy to approach Joseph Boyden. Although the organizers of the retreat had made it very clear that face time with the instructors was as much a part of the retreat as the workshops themselves, we couldn’t quite believe that a three-time acclaimed novelist would welcome the intrusion of a couple of bloggers.
A couple of days later, I was standing next to Joseph at Dillon Whiskey Bar. “Look at that,” he said, directing my attention to the bar. Of course I had already noticed Geraldine Brooks and Susan Orlean seated, heads together, deep in conversation. (The guitar player from Sólstafir stood behind Geraldine, completing the trinity of my idolatry.) Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden said he still couldn’t believe that he, with the little bit of writing he had done, was here in the same role as those two. “I’m going to be a fanboy and take a picture,” he said, pulling out his cell phone.
The final event of Iceland Writers Retreat was a panel Q & A session with all eight of the featured authors. After the intimacy of the workshops, many attendees preferred to nurse their hangovers, but those of us who dragged our wrecked bodies to the auditorium were well rewarded. By now it was obvious that the retreat had been a roaring success; the authors had shed any performance anxiety and the attendees had overcome their awe. While the social events remained mostly social and the workshops focused strictly on craft, the Q & A turned to broader questions of the writing life.
Susan Orlean told a story. One day at the New Yorker offices, she saw a writer turn in a story in person. He paced the office all morning, nervously drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes while his editor read the piece. Although I had never heard of the man, Susan was in awe of him. She couldn’t imagine what would make this rock star of the literary world so anxious. She asked her editor what the man had been working on that he was so wound up about it, and the editor replied, “All writers are like that.” Susan concluded, “Most writers suffer miserably from imposter syndrome; that’s just part of the job.” To which Sara Wheeler added, “The only writers who think they are any good are the ones who aren’t.”
For me, the most valuable lesson of the Iceland Writers Retreat was one of identity. I belong to an imposture of authors.